‘Americana” is a genre often donned by singer-songwriters with an affinity for classic country music but whose respect for artistry resists any association with CMT and all that country has become. However you choose to classify it, Sunset Moon, the debut solo effort by Railbird drummer Chris Carey, makes no apologies for the honky-tonk bloodline in its Americana. At the heart of Carey’s songwriting, and in his rootsy arrangements of guitar, pedal steel, harmonica and mandolin, there’s the ethos of the everyman just doing the best he can, a well-worn sentiment common to much of American music, whether, for you, it connotes Willie Nelson or Jeff Buckley.
Carey himself covers duties on guitar, piano, drums and harmonica, while enlisting the help of Saratoga sideman extraordinaire Tony Markellis on bass and a host of pickers, including his Railbird bandmates Chris Kyle and Sarah Pedinotti. The end result is a polished and balanced trip through the sound of the ’70s. “Nothin’ on My Mind” recalls Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” while “Traveling Song” seems plucked from a Neil Young guitar book, with a foreword by Don Henley. A more contemporary referent might be Reid Genauer (of Strangefolk and Assembly of Dust), in Carey’s ability to spin modern down-home narratives over a bed of chiming guitars. It’s Carey’s surprisingly strong voice that carries the album, though, equally comfortable on the ballad “Angels and Sailors” as the 12-bar shuffle “Freewheelin’” and the excellent honky-tonk “Light and Wind.”
Sunset Moon is undoubtedly an upbeat affair, with tracks like “Nothin’ on My Mind,” “Freewheelin’” and “Feelin’ Good” befitting the simple optimism of a sunny spring morning. That’s not to say, though, that it doesn’t work just as well on a lazy socks-and-sweaters Sunday morning in January.
On paper, Cuddle Magic look a bit like a Northeast version of Broken Social Scene, the Toronto band/collective who concentrated the local efforts of diverse musicians like Leslie Feist, Brendan Canning, and members of Metric and Do Make Say Think. The band’s 12 members hail from Boston, New York and Philadelphia, but have their roots in the New England Conservatory, a collaborative situation that yields a brand of baroque pop both studied and wide-ranging.
Picture, the band’s sophomore effort, took form over the course of two years and between band members’ obligations toward other projects. Principal songwriter (and Railbird bassist) Ben Davis provided the album with the bulk of its material, adapting his brother Tim’s poetry into lush acoustic arrangements adorned with strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Songs like “The Packaging” immediately recall Sufjan Stevens in the way voice and banjo unfold in a humble, effortless 10/8 meter, cycling to collect support from violin, the rhythm section and female voice. The abundant use of complex time signatures on the album is never showy, but instead seems to naturally support the cadence of Davis’ lyrical and somewhat digressive prose. Still, when the song reaches an instrumental bridge that alternates between 5/4 and 4/4, the band prove they can groove and keep a listener guessing at the downbeat like the best of progressive jazz groups.
Without ever stroking their own virtuosity, the band display what a musical education is good for in the tracks that follow, cobbling together an immersive long-player from an arsenal of styles and influences. “Don’t Forget” is a somber Thom Yorke-ish lament with electronic drums and dubby bass. “Fanfare” evokes Steve Reich’s The Cave and Van Dyke Parks’ arrangements for Joanna Newsom’s Ys with skittering string parts that parrot the confessional lyrics and spare drums that push the odd meter through controlled tempo changes. Most important, the album is a collection of incredible pop melodies. Alec Spiegleman’s “Expectations” is heart-wrenching in a way that cuts deeper with every listen, his vulnerable vocals gulping a flat note here and there but never sounding pandering or cute. “Say When” harnesses similar emotion, pushing the coda toward a cinematic, post-rock climax that would suit a TV drama in all the right ways. And the sequencing couldn’t be better. “In So Far,” a wry bossa nova, runs a tasty horn outro directly into the slippery Beefheart racket of “Paris/Happydent,” which itself resolves in a simple, soaring vocal refrain.
Like few musical offerings in an Internet age that thrives on disposable ephemera, Picture is less infectious than it is inhabitable. Each track is at once immediately accessible and affecting, but also cavernous enough that some exploration is required. “One Useful Song” voices this intention directly, suggesting that, if the listener is lost while camping, the physical, reflective CD may function as more than “musical décor or sonic petit four” and have some real use. For conventional listening, though, the music here should alone be plenty useful.
The Classic Artie Shaw Victor and Bluebird Sessions
Mosaic Records’ recent-years policy of reissuing only selected items from a given recording session has infuriated a few fortissimo posters on jazz-based Internet message boards, but it gives us such treasures as the recently issued seven-CD Artie Shaw set, spanning the years 1938 to 1944, when Shaw and his orchestra were at the peak of their popularity.
And it starts with a bang: Shaw’s hit recording of “Begin the Beguine,” the Cole Porter song that had been deemed unrecordable because of its unusual length. It was his first session with a newly formed band on a newly signed contract with Victor Records, and went on to sell phenomenally.
But Shaw didn’t come from nowhere. A much-in-demand studio clarinetist in the ’30s, he first put together a band with strings, a band that flopped even in the wake of Benny Goodman’s sudden popularity. He retrenched, redefined and put together “the loudest goddamn band in the world.” And was off like a shot.
That June 1938 Victor session also produced the only recording featuring the band with vocalist Billie Holiday (“Any Old Time”), who left shortly thereafter because of a myriad of racial issues. That vocal is included in the set, but 68 others were passed over, 43 of them by the reliable but not terribly jazzy Helen Forrest.
I’ve heard those vocals and they’re enjoyable, but the only one I really miss is Pauline Byrne’s “Gloomy Sunday,” and only then for its contrast with the nonpareil Billie Holiday version. Lena Horne’s 1941 sessions are here, more out of historical than stylistic interest.
Fame proved to be an albatross for Shaw, who wearied of the constant demand for “Begin the Beguine” and the boorishness of the jitterbugging fans. He walked off the bandstand one night in November 1939 and fled to Mexico, but returned a few later to finish a contractual recording obligation—and produced another killer hit, “Frenesi,” at a session (with strings, finally) that also produced a fascinating version of classical composer Edward MacDowell’s piano sketch “A Deserted Farm,” not released until 1978 and even then unfairly damned by the intolerant Gunther Schuller.
But that was a nice reminder that Shaw’s work can continue to confound his critics. In 1940, he drew a six-man ensemble from his orchestra and dubbed it the Gramercy Five, featuring Johnny Guarneri on (a terrible sounding) harpsichord for a unique percussive bite. Far more comfortable with brilliant soloists than was Goodman, Shaw welcomed trumpeter Hot Lips Page into the band in 1941, and Lips’ vocal on “Blues in the Night” is definitive.
Shaw’s last big band in this collection was formed during wartime, and another trumpet star, Roy Eldridge, was featured in recordings that centered around the best of the standards, including plenty of Gershwin.
If you take Ellington’s band as the pinnacle of color and innovation, then Shaw wasn’t too far behind. Terms like “restless” and “inventive” have been thrown at the clarinetist since even before he put down his ax for the last time in 1954, but as these brilliant recordings attest, they still apply.